Strategies for calming a racing mind when trying to sleep

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

By Dr Cristina Ruscitto, Senior Researcher

There is a complex relationship between how we feel during the day and sleep at night. Research shows that poor sleep affects our mood and mood regulation, and bad mood and worry affect our ability to sleep well, for example, in the evening worrying about events we have experienced during the day can make it difficult to get to sleep. We have all experienced being unable to switch off and think about a problem repeatedly. A ‘racing mind’ or being ‘wired’ before bedtime can lead to problems associated with falling asleep and staying asleep at night. It could be that sleep difficulties lead to a racing mind, or it may be that a tendency to worry in general makes us more vulnerable to experiencing sleep difficulties by keeping our mind alert at night. When we lie awake in bed, we may catastrophise, exaggerating the consequences of not sleeping well, for example by thinking the following: ‘I won’t function properly’, ‘My work will suffer’, ‘I will lose my job’. In the light of day, we are more likely to see how this kind of sleep worry is unrealistic.

But how do we stop intrusive thoughts at bedtime or during the night? Here are some strategies that you could try to calm a racing mind:

  1. Be realistic about your sleep need
    You may not need to sleep 8 hours a night, which is the ‘ideal amount of sleep’ often cited in the media. We are all different in terms of the amount of sleep we need each night to fully function during the day and be healthy.

  2. Remind yourself it is normal to have occasional sleep problems
    It is normal to experience occasional, short-term, sleep problems, particularly during challenging times at work or at home. Your sleep will return to ‘normal’ unless you develop worry about sleep and carry on the negative thought pathway in the long term.

  3. Try mindfulness
    Mindfulness can help us be more in control of our thoughts. It is a type of mental training whereby we are encouraged to be in the present moment and observe our thoughts without being judgemental or reactive. It is not designed to get us to sleep, but to step back and see a thought for what it is: just a thought. Mindfulness allows us to notice and accept our thoughts rather than react to them. This in turn reduces anxiety. Sleep anxiety can start during the day, so practise mindfulness during the daytime. When practised in bed for 5 to 15 minutes, mindfulness is a type of meditation that can promote sleep. The same meditation can be used if you wake during the night, to help you to get back to sleep. Athletes can suffer from pre-game insomnia, caused by worry, with negative effects on physical and mental performance. A study found that university student-athletes who watched a six-minute mindfulness induction video after training, and before bed, had reduced pre-sleep anxiety before bedtime and slept better. The athletes who just watched a non-mindfulness video (bell chimes sounded without mindful attention instructions) did not experience any sleep improvements. *

  4. ‘Let it be
    We may not be able to control what thoughts enter our head at night, but we can stop making judgements which can spiral out of control. For example, ‘I will look tired’, ‘I won’t function’, and ‘I will never sleep well again’ can be replaced with: ‘Actually, the last time I had a bad night, I still managed to get a few hours of sleep’, ‘I wasn’t at my best but I got through the day OK’. When we stop judging, we are more in control and being more in control makes us feel calmer. The likelihood is that we will fall asleep more quickly. Stopping yourself from judging your thoughts can be difficult but using mindfulness can help.

  5. During the night, lock away your thoughts
    Whatever is keeping you awake at night can wait until tomorrow. In the middle of the night, we are unlikely to solve anything, so mentally blocking your worries can help. What’s more, at night, our mood and alertness are low and catastrophising is particularly likely.

  6. Stop trying to fall asleep
    ‘Trying hard’ to get to sleep doesn’t work. In fact, trying to fall asleep actually causes you to stay awake for longer and increases anxiety, whereas we feel sleepy when we try to stay awake. The aim is, instead of actively trying to fall asleep, to think about trying to stay awake a bit longer.

  7. Label your emotions: ‘Name to tame’

    When you have negative thoughts about sleep try to label those thoughts. For example:

    Thought -> ’I will not function properly tomorrow’ -> Label = ‘Cope’

    By labelling negative emotions we immediately distance ourselves from them as we don’t have to react. We don’t need to fight these thoughts anymore or try to get rid of them. As a result, our anxiety immediately reduces. Try to describe and label thoughts about sleep both during the day and at night. Once you have mastered labelling, the next step is to accept these thoughts and welcome them as they pop up. Symbolically you are saying: ‘I know you are here ‘cope’ so welcome!’.

    For more advice on labelling emotions you can read this resource 

  8. Follow the 30-minute rule:
    If you are awake for more than 30 minutes, get out of bed and leave the bedroom. The aim is to break the association between being in bed and being awake which develops over time. Try to do something relaxing, including the strategies suggested above, and return to bed only when you feel sleepy.


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*Li, C., Kee, Y. H., & Lam, L. S. (2018). Effect of brief mindfulness induction on university athletes’ sleep quality following night training. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 508.4